When the News is Full of Disasters: Helping Calm the Kids

My heart goes out to those directly impacted by any of the many natural and man-made disasters going on right now. I’m obsessed with my news feed, anxiously scanning coverage of Hurricane Maria in the Caribbean, rescues from the rubble of Mexico city, the suffering of the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh… I feel anxious, then I feel guilty, and then I realize, I need to turn this time and energy into something more productive and positive.

I calm myself by researching ways to promote awareness and provide tangible assistance. Sometimes I’ll talk to others who are also thinking and reflecting, which helps.

But what about the kids?

My son is seven, and has always been keen on science and especially the weather, but with all this inevitable chatter about hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes, he has become… as obsessed as I am.

He begs to check the weather radar and watch the weather report, noting which storms are where in the world. On last week’s trip to the library, he took out two large books on natural disasters. This, in addition to the two we have at home, not to mention all the weather and earth-science ones.

But what is telling is all the questions he asks:

“Can we get earthquakes here? Will they be big earthquakes? Will our house fall down? Will there be a tsunami? Do we have volcanoes? Can you have an earthquake without a volcano? Can you have a tsunami without an earthquake? Can hurricanes cause tsunamis? What’s a storm surge then? Can a storm surge be as big as a tsunami? Can tornadoes happen in a hurricane? Can a hurricane happen here? Could it make tornadoes? Could it rip the roof off of our house? What about the walls?…”

You get the idea. All these questions and more, often repeated.

To date, I’ve been trying to answer factually, even opening his books and finding actual answers, as well as reassuring him.

But, the questions keep coming. It’s dawned on me: It’s not the science he’s curious about. He’s anxious, and we’re not adequately addressing his anxiety.

I had some time this afternoon, so I researched a bit how to better manage this. There are a bunch of helpful articles out there, and here are two that I found immediately useful:

The Hand in Hand parenting organization published this article on Talking to Your Child About Disasters that resonated with me. The very brief article emphasizes not focusing on answering all these questions with facts, but rather providing explicit reassurance to kids, that they and their loved ones are safe. The other very important take-away is that fear and anxiety will bubble up in the form of irrational behaviors and temper tantrums. These episodes shouldn’t be punished or squelched, rather, a parent should respond warmly and lovingly, keeping the child safe and allowing them to “get it all out”. I believe this is true most of the time anyways, though it’s difficult to remember when your kid is acting out in public…

(As an aside, for parenting advice in general, I strongly recommend the Hand in Hand Parenting website and book . We’ve just found their philosophy incredibly useful. I receive nothing in return for this recommendation, don’t even know these people, I swear!).

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published this list of bullet points that emphasizes honesty and reassurance. They, like other sites, also recommend shielding children from news images or photos that may be disturbing. And, they also mention that fears can manifest as physical symptoms, like headaches and stomachaches. They recommend allowing kids to express themselves and their thoughts through drawing or play, and let them talk about events if they want to.

We’ve noticed that our son has started creating “textbooks” about disasters, or weaving tornadoes and hurricanes into the plots of his other books (he creates paper “books” and comics as a hobby). This is likely one way for him to try to make sense of it all.

And though he begs to see the weather reports on the news, I think we’ll try to steer him away from that, as the images could be traumatizing. Even some of the photos in those children’s books we checked out are disturbing, like the ruins of Pompeii, featuring the hardened casts of those people entombed by the “pyroclastic flow” thousands of years ago… That may be why he’s been up at night so often lately.

Hopefully these links will be as helpful to other parents as they were for us.

Tornadoes: A Super Storm

Tornados are strong winds

They destroy and suck stuff up in their path

They can be huge and have thunderstorms

Photo hanging on my son’s wall

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